How 'This Town' Justifies War and Peace

The American people's lack of engagement on Syria is cited in Washington to help legitimize war. But it does the opposite.

Has an insular Beltway elite and its hawkish assumptions made war in Syria more likely? My argument to that effect garnered a response from Isaac Chotiner of The New Republic, who asserts that my concept of how Washington, D.C., works is "simplistic in the extreme," though he concedes that "there is a certain bias towards hawkishness in various press coverage of American military action (or inaction)." That concession alone nearly satisfies me.

Let's nevertheless look at a chunk of his critique:

Syrian atrocities have been going on for years now. The death toll makes the entire conflict a catastrophe of immense proportions. The war is occurring in what is sometimes called a "crucial region" of the world, and the effects of Assad's mania have been felt by nearly all of his neighbors. The refugee problems are enormous and depressing. And yet, here we are, several years after it all began, and during that time (until now) there has been ... absolutely no serious discussion of American military engagement! John McCain and others have been yelling at the top of their lungs to no effect.

That isn't my understanding of events. For several years, the American public has greeted news of civil war in Syria with apathy. There has been zero desire from the public to intervene. But there has been consistent pressure within Washington, where the prevailing assumption is that the U.S. should take an active roll in the Middle East, and where a faction wants us involved in every dispute. Circa 2011, the public wasn't party to most of the debate on intervention in Syria, but that doesn't mean intervention didn't have its advocates inside and outside government as well as detractors who reacted with alarm.

Insider pressure from McCain and many others led directly to President Obama saying, a year ago, that use of chemical weapons would cross "a red line" for the U.S. Did that not constitute serious discussion of American military engagement? Hawks are certainly citing it today as if, having uttered it, we can't not intervene.

The "red line" comment was hardly the only serious discussion of war. In the spring of 2012, for example, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Senator Jeff Sessions had this exchange:

SESSIONS: Do you think you can act without Congress and initiate a no-fly zone in Syria without congressional approval?

PANETTA: Our goal would be to seek international permission … Whether or not we would want to get permission from the Congress -- I think those are issues we would have to discuss as we decide what to do here.

SESSIONS: Well I am almost breathless about that because what I heard you say is, "We’re going to seek international approval and we’ll come and tell the Congress what we might do, and we might seek congressional approval" … Wouldn’t you agree that would be pretty breathtaking to the average American?

Shortly thereafter, Rep. Walter Jones cited fear of war with Syria as one reason why he introduced a resolution to impeach Obama if he went to war without Congress. That summer, the Heritage Foundation was warning against intervention. Lots of people seemed to think intervention was a realistic possibility. Senators yelling at the top of their lungs for intervention itself strikes me as "serious discussion of military engagement," which was their deadly serious goal.

Chotiner writes:

The issue occasionally made the front page of serious newspapers, but it was not a huge topic of conversation on cable television or even at the cocktail parties where Washington elites bow down before defense contractors. 

I can't speak to defense-contractor cocktail parties, my invitations having all been mysteriously lost in the mail, but it's no accident that serious newspapers covered Syria while cable television didn't. Newspaper editors understood events in Syria were important, and that America could conceivable be drawn into the conflict. And cable-news producers, whose coverage decisions are far less driven by what's important, correctly concluded that Americans aren't interested in Syria (save when hawks were yelling at Obama for not arming the rebels). The coverage described is consistent with an insular elite driving intervention.

Now, however, not only has the scale of the calamity continued to grow, but President Obama (who I think qualifies as a member of the Washington elite) made an off-the-cuff statement about chemical weapons and "red lines." Thus, after the apparent use of these weapons earlier this month, the president's was put in a difficult position of his own making. In essence, this pressure that Friedersdorf finds so nefarious is largely the result of a statement by the one man who, more than anyone else, has opposed American intervention!

But that off-the-cuff statement wasn't made in a vacuum. It was made in a town with activist assumptions about foreign policy, demands that Obama say something about Syria, and the inevitable filtering of his remarks through a press with pro-intervention biases. Had Obama said nothing about Syria ever, the vast majority of Americans wouldn't have cared -- they do not share The New Republic's notions of our global responsibilities, and many of them find absurd the notion that an off-the-cuff statement should be the deciding factor for war. Hyperventilating about Obama's "credibility" and "legacy" are insider ticks.

Surely Friedersdorf understands that presidents care about their publicly made promises regarding international affairs.

Why do presidents care about their publicly made promises involving international affairs? Are they morally averse to breaking their word, or embarrassed by reversing themselves? If that were so, Obama would care more about his public statements on how presidents must consult Congress before striking another nation in the absence of an attack or the imminent threat of one. He'd also care more about his prior statements on the importance of UN legitimacy. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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